While defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has been far from awful in 2014, he and his No. 48 team have not quite been on their usual, world-beating form.
That made today’s Chase elimination race at Dover International Speedway important for Johnson in the eyes of some observers.
Johnson was likely to advance to the Contender Round fairly easily, but said observers wanted to see if he would make a statement on a track where he’s won nine Sprint Cup races in his career.
Johnson finished third today behind winner Jeff Gordon and runner-up Brad Keselowski in a steady performance. At the same time, he did not lead a lap at Dover for the first time since 2007.
So should we still be worried about Johnson? That’s probably just going to be our question to answer.
As for Johnson himself, he’s just glad to be moving on after finishes of 12th, fifth, and third in the opening Challenger Round.
“These first three races went pretty well,” Johnson said. “I think Chicago was probably the track where we left the most points on the table. Today, we kind of ran, finished where we ran, but we had a decent car – really strong on the long runs but just would lose too much time to make up the deficit that I had there.
“Good solid day today, happy to advance.”
But now comes the aforementioned Contender Round, which begins next weekend at Kansas, continues on to Charlotte, and ends with the mother of all wild cards at Talladega.
Obviously, nobody wants to be forced into a win or (metaphorically) go home situation heading into the ‘Dega crapshoot.
“If I’m one of the guys that wins at Charlotte or Kansas, it’s sure going to make the race at Talladega fun,” Johnson mused about the next three stops on the Chase. “Otherwise, you’re just going to be on pins and needles and stressing like crazy.
“That’s the strategy, really – try to win one of those first two so you can go to Talladega, pull them tight and let it rip.”
A win at Kansas or Charlotte would not only save him from that stress and push him to the Eliminator Round. It would also further legitimize his bid for a record-tying seventh Cup championship.
But as usual, Johnson and Team 48 won’t look too far ahead and will be taking things one step at a time.
Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.
There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.
Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.
Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.
By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.
With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.
This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.
Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.
Two privateers have started the season on a high note.
Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.
The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.
Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.
In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.